Anyway, prompted by Sue’s comment on my last post, I decided it was about time I finally put this long-overdue post on sleep training out there. I have wanted to write about this for a long time but held back for one reason or the other. At first, I wasn’t sure if my methods were even going to work and when they did, I was scared to jinx them by talking about them and last but not least, I was wary of the flaming that I would get for what some people will see as my cruel and hard-hearted parenting approach.
For the uninitiated, sleep training refers to any or all methods that parents may choose to adopt to teach their kids to go to sleep on their own and stay asleep through the night. I shall talk about some of the methods that I am aware of and my experience and opinion about them as I go along with the post. Anyway, with the background and context out of the way, let me jump into the post itself.
The beginning is always a good place to start so that is what I shall do. Sleep training has been a kind of tradition in my family. My maternal grandmother, way back in the 1940’s, taught her kids to sleep on their own by letting them cry-it-out (CIO) for a few days while they got the message that being rocked/ patted/fed to sleep was no longer on the menu. My mother sleep-trained us the same way at the tender age of three months, much to the horror of her in-laws, who thought it was the cruellest thing imaginable. And in the spirit of keeping the family heritage alive and burning, I was inducted into the concept almost immediately after I announced I was pregnant.
To start with, I was having none of it. I thought it was cruel and inhuman to put a baby through that and to just abandon him to cry till he eventually went to sleep. I had long arguments with my mother on the relative pros and cons and felt quite sure that I would never subject my child to anything of the sort. Well, as they say – never say never…
Ayaan came along and I seriously believe that in his early months, he was the worst sleeper in the history of all time. OK so maybe I don’t know about the sleep habits of all babies ever born on this planet but conversations and comparisons with other moms, both of my generation as well as older, more experienced family members, did not yield any worse examples of bad sleepers. The only consolation prize was that he slept a stretch of 6 hours in the night from his second week onwards and that was the only thing that kept me sane in those initial months. But to get him down for his night sleep was a task of mammoth proportions involving one and a half hours of breastfeeding and some very careful timing and even more delicate depositing into the cot. After that, when he woke up for his night feed, the same procedure had to be repeated to get him back to sleep and then he would condescend to sleep for another 2 hours. And that was it! All that stuff I read about babies needing 14 hours a day of sleep didn’t quite pan out as I’d thought it would. Ayaan was utterly allergic to the concept of daytime naps and even if he did make the mistake of falling asleep while being walked, he would immediately awaken if I even tried to sit down – putting him down in the cot while the sun was still shining being a distant dream.
Things got even worse when he started finishing his night feed before falling asleep – requiring endless walking up and down before he was in a deep enough slumber to risk putting him down. Not only was I a sleep-deprived and frustrated mother with a never-ending backache, Ayaan was a grumpy and unhappy baby. As if that were not enough, the doctor said that his poor weight gain was a mix of his fussy feeding combined with inadequate sleep. I finally came around to the fact that something needed to be done. But I was still not ready to just let him just cry it out.
As a first step I added a consistent bedtime routine in the third month, which included a wash, a feed, a book and a lullaby but that made no difference by itself.
In the fourth month, I decided to try out the less drastic Pick Up/ Put Down Method prescribed by Tracy Hogg (aka The Baby Whisperer). This technique basically starts with putting the baby into the cot. If he cries, you pick him up and hold him close (no rocking or walking though) till he stops crying but make sure he is still awake when you put him back in the cot. As is to be expected, the baby will start crying the minute he is placed back in the cot. Then you pick him up again and repeat and so on and so forth till he falls asleep on his own. In the beginning, you have to repeat the drill over a hundred times and that’s what I tried to do. But it was not to be. I don’t think this is a bad method but it depends on the mom and the baby’s temperaments. Ayaan is one stubborn kid and even when I was holding him, he took ages to calm down because he wanted his walking/rocking fix. And I am not the most patient of people and that coupled with a terrible backache from the constant bending to put him down and pick him up, I was done with this method in about 3 days.
At this point, my aunt from New York sent the sleep book written by Dr. Richard Ferber. I started reading it and decided that maybe it wasn’t all that bad. The book appealed to both my rational and my emotional side. The former was pacified by the opening chapter which uses logic and science to explain how babies are not born knowing how to get themselves to sleep and this is yet another thing that parents need to help them learn. My mother's heart found some comfort in the fact that his technique was a modified CIO technique that was more palatable to me. In the Ferber technique, you don’t just abandon the baby to cry it out till he falls asleep. Rather you keep going in at regular intervals to reassure the child that you are still around but you don’t pick him up.
I was still in two minds though. The turning point came one day when Ayaan was about five and a half months old and had taken over two hours to settle down for the night. Since nothing else seemed to be working, I decided to go with the Ferber technique.
We did in the following steps:
- First, we decided to fix the falling asleep at night bit. I would do the bedtime rituals mentioned above, say goodnight, put him in the crib and walk out. The first night, he cried for over an hour. I went in after 5 minutes, then 10 minutes after that, then 15 minutes after that and finally after 25 minutes. That was the last time I had to go in that night. Now, the Ferber book seems to suggest that this technique will be working like a dream in a week or thereabouts but for us it took us months. So he cried for 30-45 minutes in the first week. And then for 10-15 minutes in the second week. After that, he came down to 5 minutes of crying, which went on for another two months. Finally, he did another couple of months of shouting/ grumbling/ whining for a couple of minutes before falling asleep. And then it was finally over! At around 10 months of age, Ayaan learnt to go to sleep at night without a whimper.
- The night waking just kept extending on its own and soon he was sleeping at 9 and waking at 5 without much effort at our end. If he did wake up earlier, I would ignore him for 5-10 minutes but if he still persisted, I would feed him. By 11 months of age, he was waking only at six, which has over time reached its current (and more acceptable) waking time of seven. We also found that his restlessness was correlated with us being in the room because if he woke up and saw us there, he wouldn’t want to go back to sleep. So we moved out of the room and slept in the guest room and after that, the night sleep was more or less fixed.
- When he was down to 5 minutes of crying in the night, we started with his morning nap. I had thought this would be easier but it was actually much tougher. For day naps, Ferber suggests that you let them cry as for the night sleep, but if they are still not asleep after an hour you just pick them up and try again the next day. For over two weeks, Ayaan cried for an hour and didn’t sleep at all. So I decided to give it one last shot and then give up on getting any decent napping behaviour out of him. That day he slept after half an hour of crying. Within a week, he was down to 5-10 minutes of crying.
So in the final analysis, it was a much longer road than the book suggested but it worked in the end. I still follow the same bedtime routine (minus the feeding) and when I put him in his cot at nine, he smiles at me, picks up his Noddy, turns on to his stomach and then I put out the light and leave. And that’s it. Then he sleeps straight through to seven in the morning. The situation for the afternoon nap is similar but not always so predictable. Once in 7-10 days, he will refuse to sleep in the afternoon. But he no longer cries – he just sits in his cot and shouts for us to pick him up, which we do if he continues in this fashion for 10 minutes or more.
I know a lot of people think this method is cruel but it worked for me and I am pretty sure I will do it for my second child as well, unless he/ she is born a good sleeper. And my reason is pretty clear – it transformed my family in more ways than one:
- Ayaan went from being a clingy, irritable baby to a mostly cheerful and playful little fellow.
- We are no longer sleep-deprived and grumpy parents and when he wakes up in the morning and calls for us, we are raring to go and pick him up, unlike the earlier ‘Oh no, not again’ response.
- Because of the predictability of his sleep patterns, we can have a social life and go out in the nights once he has gone to sleep.
- Jai and I get to spend some quality time together as well once he’s in bed because we can truly relax rather than worry about him giving us a tough during the night.
At the same time, I also believe that the Ferber method may not be right from every mother and baby. Some of those are:
- If you are the sort of mother who cannot bear to let her baby cry for even a minute, you clearly won’t be able to stay the course through this method. I am not saying that it was enjoyable or easy for me to hear him cry but it was something I was willing live with in light of the longer term gains I was hoping for. However, a friend of mine who was impressed with my results with Ayaan lasted all of 5 minutes before she went and picked her baby up on the first day itself.
- It is important to have support from the rest of the family. As mentioned earlier, my mother is a strong supporter of CIO methods. Jai too agreed with me on this. I don’t think I would have been able to go through this if any of them had violently disagreed with me or taunted me with “Poor fellow, maybe you should just pick him up’.
- Some babies just naturally settle into good sleep patterns and sleep an acceptable amount of time. In that case, it wouldn’t be worth it to go through the trauma of the Ferber method.
Anyway, those are my two cents on the sleep training issue. How did the rest of you deal with your kids’ sleep issues?